Foreign Correspondent in Germany, Emma Wallace, explores in detail how you can deal with loneliness on your year abroad and gives examples of her and her friends’ strategies to overcome these “study abroad blues”.
Loneliness is not an experience unique to studying or working abroad. Given that 32% of university students have reportedly experienced some degree of loneliness, it is possible that any university experience could produce these feelings. Loneliness, however, can be exacerbated by a placement abroad, where you are relocated to a new country and can be confronted with a language that is new to you.
I thought that it would be useful to collate together a comprehensive list of techniques for those that are about to embark on their year abroad and are worried about experiencing loneliness.
I was made aware I could experience some degree of loneliness before I even started out on my year abroad. As a department that sends out one of the largest cohorts of exchange students in the country, Exeter’s Study Abroad team was a fully-equipped hub of knowledge. They remained transparent about the various difficulties that students could experience; while this was intimidating when applying, I appreciated that their honesty allowed me to mentally prepare for the year ahead. Unlike my romanticised expectations of university life before arriving at Exeter, I began my placement understanding that I would likely encounter the “year abroad blues” (the Study Abroad team’s term for periods of loneliness or homesickness.) Although the notion that your year abroad is the best year of your life might be an empty platitude, mine has been a wonderful, revitalising experience. There have, of course, been blips. Indeed, the belief that your year abroad will be consistently brilliant is an unhelpful mind-set, as is the idea that bouts of loneliness will detract from an overall great experience.
I have just emerged from my most intense period of loneliness. Following a two month break between semesters, I decided to return to Germany in early April, a full two weeks before the start of the new term. When I arrived, I found that there were a lot less people that I knew in Munich, especially since the majority of my international friends were only on exchange for one semester, and so, had returned home. While I had returned to the UK soon after the semester ended in mid-February, most of my Erasmus friends had remained in Germany and went on to travel around Europe shortly before I came back. Although I knew that this period of loneliness was temporary, I did feel emotionally low and was worried that this phase might characterise the remainder of my year away. These feelings dissipated, however, and I took the time to mentally re-position myself before the start of term. I kept in mind the advice given to me by the Study Abroad team, and employed the coping mechanisms that I had acquired from Exeter’s mental health facility, Wellbeing. In light of all the time I spent scouring the internet for tips on how to deal with my “study year abroad blues”, I thought that it would be useful to collate together a comprehensive list of techniques for those that are about to embark on their year abroad and are worried about experiencing loneliness.
Whilst it may be a scary thing to consider, I would already make note of the periods when you might be most prone to these bouts of loneliness. Prior to my departure in September, I contacted a friend who had already started out on her year abroad in Australia and asked about her process of settling in. She told me about how vital those initial days were in helping you acclimatise to your new location and noted that her second day was the hardest, especially since she was without a routine at the time. Although I think that you should be flexible and leave yourself room when you arrive for spontaneous meet-ups over coffee with people you just bumped into at the train station (it can happen!), I also recommend having a rough plan in mind for those first few days, even if it means listing a couple of recommended sites in your area courtesy of Trip Advisor. If you are already aware that you will be unable to visit home for special, family moments, such as birthdays or religious holidays, I would factor in special plans that will help you mark those occasions and mitigate any feelings of homesickness. I was fortunate that my relocation to Munich coincided with the start of my intensive German language course, a three-week long language programme that was invaluable in not only giving me a set structure in that first month but, also, introducing me to many of my current friends. Although this was unique to my situation as a non-German speaker, I would recommend investigating what your host university might offer for international exchange students.
University experiences vary internationally, and it is good to embark on your year abroad without expecting your time with your host university to mirror your life at Exeter. In Germany, unlike the UK, university is not singled out as an all-encompassing experience: aside from the student network, which largely organises trips away and small events throughout the year, my host university does not offer any societies. University is predominantly an academic experience, without the additional expectations that you will move away from home or participate in extracurricular activities. There is a greater prevalence, as well, in Germany of single-occupancy accommodation – a type of living that can limit opportunities for interaction with others. Despite living in accommodation where there is a shared kitchen, a friend and fellow Erasmus student even noted that the “people who you live with are just people you wave to or make small talk with for five minutes”, stating “I am not even sure of all of their names, […] at the start of my year abroad I spent a lot of time by myself in my room wondering how I would ever meet anyone in this big city”. Although this is not representative of every university or country, I would recommend being open-minded when it comes to meeting new people. Do not necessarily rely on the avenues that were available to you at Exeter for making friends and, equally, do not become dispirited if you find the process of meeting new people difficult.
One of my Erasmus friends, a student from the University of East Anglia, arrived in mid-September but was unable to attend the language course that I had enrolled onto. Due to the fact that the semester did not start until October, my friend was left without a defined structure or many opportunities to meet others for almost three weeks. When preparing this article, I asked her what she did to remedy that lull and how she handled those feelings of loneliness. She said that her most effective coping mechanism was regular contact with her best friend, who she sometimes called twice a day and often cooked with or watched the same television shows as over Skype. Noting that this might not be workable for some due to potential time differences, she, also, recommended going for regular walks and listening to podcasts as a way of familiarising yourself with the surrounding area and actively concentrating on something. If you lack a firm structure, find a reason to go outside – even if that means dividing your weekly food shop into small, regular shops. Although my friend qualified that her experience as an international student at a UK university already gave her a taster of what it is like to study abroad, she recommended being pushy and identified her regular attendance of local networking events, despite not knowing anyone at the time, as key to establishing those early connections.
Do not necessarily rely on the avenues that were available to you at Exeter for making friends and, equally, do not become dispirited if you find the process of meeting new people difficult.
For some these forced interactions can be awkward. So, another Erasmus student recommended taking these opportunities regardless and seeking out people you take a liking to – even if that means spontaneously messaging someone you have just met. Since the Erasmus community is small but interconnected, they are open to large gatherings and meeting mutual acquaintances. Although it is good to maintain contact with friends from home, I would equally recommend taking the time when you arrive to make new friends. I even had a policy when I first arrived in Munich of giving myself a couple of days to settle before I contacted my parents. At the points when I feel lonely or homesick, I am wary of being spontaneous and impulsive, knowing that any random outburst over Skype might create undue concern for my parents. When I do encounter the “year abroad blues”, I take time to evaluate my feelings and what help is available for me where I am, and in the present moment, before I confide to my family so that we can work out a constructive plan of action. These periods of loneliness are a collective experience for those who have embarked upon a year abroad- by readily acknowledging that mutual experience, you will lay the foundations for an immediate support network. As one of my friends noted, the assumption that every day will be busy and exciting is an unhelpful expectation. She stated that its normal to have days when you maybe only see one person in the corridor of your halls, or maybe just text one friend from back home, recommending that you occupy that time with making use of those quieter moments to emotionally refuel and make future plans.
There is every reason to be excited about your year abroad and I encourage that every study abroad student interrogates what there is to do in your local area, or even makes a rough list of countries and cities that you would like to visit whilst you are on exchange. A friend of mine, who is an international student from Australia, stated that these trips away were vital for her during those periods when she felt lonely or homesick. Although the opportunity to travel is a privilege that is not always feasible, I did concentrate on becoming a tourist again in Munich when I felt low and scrolled through many websites listing cheap, local events and day trips. It is best to be active during these moments and to not succumb to lethargy. I generally find that inactivity can give rise to endless scrolling on social media, a pastime that amplifies any experience of loneliness or homesickness by forcing you to compare your year abroad experience with others. Whilst I think that social media is a useful tool to document your time away, I think that its usage should always be treated with caution. Exposure to social media, and the edited, selective highlights that it often shows, was one of the key areas stressed by the Exeter Study Abroad team when discussing challenges that students experience on their exchange. Any attempt to compare one year abroad with another is fruitless, especially since there are so many external factors that define your experience. My year abroad feels incompatible with those who are in Canada or Australia, who have to factor in different term dates, holidays, a greater distance, a different university lifestyle and, often, no language barrier.
A cognitive behavioural therapy technique I learnt from my sessions with Wellbeing has been especially useful during these periods: I have a habit of catastrophizing a situation and so forcing myself to sit down, draw out a table and weigh up my negative experiences with my positive ones forces me to rationalise my study abroad blues. Although I have had a hard time accepting my mental health, I instinctively knew that I needed to establish contact with Wellbeing prior to my departure. Everyone has a mental, as well as physical, health, and you can never anticipate how a change in your lifestyle might impact it. If you feel like your mental health might be affected by your year abroad, I would make steps in the year leading up to your departure making arrangements with your local mental health facilities, or the Study Abroad team, so that they are made aware of your concerns and can offer you the appropriate support. Even though you will not be situated near Exeter, these facilities will still be available and accessible, with overnight services offered for those who are based in countries that operate in different time zones.
It is never too soon to put strategies in place for dealing with your year abroad blues and I would spend time shortly before your departure focusing on your own mental well-being. Be open to the idea that you may face some challenges on your year abroad and be conscious of the fact that your year abroad blues are temporary phases that do not have to define your year away. It is a remarkable, and brave, decision to embark on a year abroad placement, one that I think suggests your ability to adapt and embrace situations that exist outside your comfort zone. If I ever feel lonely or homesick, I keep in mind what intrigued me about the year abroad experience, how that factored into my decision to apply to Exeter, and all the enticements that pushed me to send in that application. My year abroad has exceeded the majority of my aspirations, and has made nearly every challenge I encountered in the years leading up to it worthwhile- my experience of loneliness will not alter that.